Discovery Ensemble and conductor Courtney Lewis brought three ambitious, contrasting works to Jordan Hall on November 24th. The music spanned three centuries but the pieces seemed linked by a sense of musical adventure: Beethoven’s extreme notion of musical transformation in his Fifth Symphony is present, though very differently, in Thomas Adès’s Chamber Symphony, and the drama in each is on par with the wrath of the winds that Rameau evokes in his Suite from Les Boréades. In both the familiar and the unfamiliar the ensemble showed immense musical versatility and succeeded in providing compelling insights that transcend period and style.
Lewis prefaced Adès’s Chamber Symphony by highlighting a few moments from each movement, introducing some of the unusual instruments in the score (basset-clarinet, accordion, prepared piano, etc.). The piece opens with dialog between basset and bass clarinets, played exceptionally by Alexis Lanz and Denexxel Domingo, which then proliferates throughout the ensemble. Interestingly, Adès intended this material to be the beginning of a concerto for basset clarinet, but abandoned the concerto model for something with more orchestration flexibility: a wise decision, as the results of these melodic ideas transforming throughout the piece made for compelling musical narrative. Shifts from movement to movement were seamless; the opening led to a rather dark and twisted sonata, from tango to dirge to scherzo, then dwindling into a soft and reflective close. Conductor and players alike had deep command of the music. Complex fragments passed among piano, percussion, and winds, and all of the players seemed exceptionally alert to the position and context of their place in the delicate musical threads. Pianist Nicholas Loh was at the center of many of these threads, navigating a series of tricky piano preparations without sacrificing one bit of musicality, not to mention playing highly exposed accordion lines with tremendous control and sensitivity. Much in the piece sounds vaguely familiar––a groove in the hi-hat, a swung bass line, a shred of Piazzolla––but every new stylistic trope is warped into something only distantly recognizable, on the edge of memory. This warping is perhaps the hallmark of Adès’s style: ideas continually transforming into living, breathing things. That he had developed his unique style of development by the age of 19 (when he composed the Chamber Symphony) is astonishing.
The Suite from Les Boréades, extracted from Rameau’s five-act opera about a Bactrian queen and a string of suitors who are descendants of the god of the North Winds, features 11 varied selections of music exemplifying the scale of ballet’s presence in 18th-century French opera. Composed toward the end of Rameau’s life, the piece possesses no less evocation of adventure and youth than the Adès. Loh was as proficient on harpsichord as on piano and accordion. Clarinettists Alexis Lanz and Denexxel Domingo played, with life and vitality, some of the earliest music composed for their instruments. Bianca Garcia and Kate Lemmon navigated beautiful, unusually orchestrated passages for two unison piccolos with elegance and grace. The suite has no shortage of oddities: abrupt flourishes evoking erratic weather patterns from the winds, oddly formed dances and rondeaus, and the use of a wind machine in the percussion section that seemed to obscure every element of the underlying instrumental counterpoint. Some of these may be less bizarre within the dramatic context of the opera. What the piece does offer is a fascinating view of Rameau: not the conservative intellectual (as he is sometimes misconstrued, perhaps because of his theoretical treatises), but an experimentalist with a masterful imagination for melody and counterpoint.
In the second half Discovery Ensemble treated the audience to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I was reminded of a program the BSO performed in 2006, where the Grosse Fuge was performed twice, bookending Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto. I realized then that even the most familiar Beethoven can be heard very differently when placed next to later musical paradigms. So instead of approaching the Fifth as someone who has heard it countless times, I listened as I listened to the Adès, embracing each moment as it passed, avoiding an interpretative lens of prediction and expectation. Lewis moved the performance with vigor bordering on urgency. It was wonderful to behold the full force of the full ensemble, which placed aggression over uniformity and grace (the way, in my opinion, the work is meant to be heard). The dynamic scope of this performance was undoubtedly its strongest aspect: I have heard other groups bring far less force with far more players. This Beethoven was altogether rewarding.
Discovery Ensemble continues its season on March 2 with performances of Schubert, Haydn, Berg, and Brahms.